Wizards Trade is Necessary, But Think of the Children
I like the idea of the Wizards making a move before the trade deadline to grab up a guard who can do some scoring off the bench. God knows they need one. Trey Burke has played better in the last month or so, but his vision and anticipation skills are still alarmingly poor for an NBA guard, and Scott Brooks’ bench units still have an infuriating tendency to lapse into brutal, aimless perimeter handoff routines that are lucky to culminate in tightly contested jumpers, instead of turnovers. Tomas Satoransky is a capable ball-handler with a calming influence on the offense, but his timidity as a scorer is still an issue, and he will probably never be quick or creative enough to get deep into the paint off the dribble against a set defense. And Sheldon McClellan, bless him, is too frantic with the ball. The Wizards could stand to upgrade with a guard who can do some things. A guard like, say, Will Barton would look really interesting alongside, say, Satoransky and Kelly Oubre — the trio could, in theory, hide Barton defensively and let him create his own opportunities when the offense otherwise bogs down. Insert whoever you like, there (I like Barton much more than I like Lou Williams or Brandon Knight) — the basics are pretty straightforward: the Wizards have an opening for a rotation-grade guard who can score.
Like any shopper who is not my mother-in-law, I like the idea of the thing a lot less as its cost rises. Things have costs, and good things cost more than bad things (most of the time), and so finding a guard who can actually move the needle for Washington is going to require a little bloodletting. This is where we run up against what exactly we want our Wizards to be. And in order to hone in on what we want them to be, we have to form a complete sense of what they really are. Thankfully, this is a lot less depressing an undertaking than it has been in recent years! The Wizards are good. Not meh, they’re good, and not they’re good BUT, but the deep, guttural gooooooood that issues forth after a bite of a really excellent brownie. The Wizards (deep breath) are good (whew) in a way that actually matters in the NBA. As I sit here, there are four teams in the NBA ranked in the top ten in both offensive rating and defensive rating, and the Wizards are one of them. Only the Spurs, Rockets, and Warriors have better records since December 1. The Wizards, right now, are good.
(Because you have been reared in the all-or-nothing world of American sports, and because your language is the native language of Thom Loverro and Skip Bayless and Jason Whitlock, you look at the word “good” and your mind immediately begins to scan for the dimensions of the gap between the Wizards and Greatness. Stop that. I would like to invite you to consider an alternate way of conceiving of greatness. I would like for you to consider it not as it is used in the world of somber, heavy-handed sports writing, but as it is used in loud, drunken conversations about your favorite bands. What is the greatest pop band of all time? The greatest pop band of all time is probably The Beatles, even though I genuinely like less than half of their songs, and don’t especially like any of them. Are they the best band? Perhaps not. Are they my favorite band? Definitely not. But they are definitely two things: they are definitely a good band, and they are definitely a great band. How will we know when or if the Wizards ever achieve greatness? We will know if, at some point in the future, we are drunkenly arguing about where they rank among the great teams of their era. Greatness is not a prerequisite of championships; greatness is the reward.)
It’s a blessing to be good. It’s hard! Ask the Hornets, who thought they were good, and made a series of moves this past offseason based around the belief that they were fundamentally good, and are now not remotely good. Ask the Trail Blazers, who thought they could shore up their basic goodness with Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli, and are now bad. Ask the 2015-16 Washington Wizards, who thought it would be a good idea to punt on jealously clutching their nascent goodness in order to take a home run crack at being Great, and were instead miserable and not good.
What we have learned along the arc of John Wall’s time in D.C. is that even a minimally functional, talent-poor squad built around his singular talents is still solid enough to be merely miserable and not good, instead of awful. Even with a maddeningly inconsistent and unhealthy Bradley Beal, a slow-developing Otto Porter, Kris Humphries interloping as an NBA starter, and on not one but TWO bum knees, John Wall is good for something like 41 wins. If this season has taught us anything, it’s that the gains made in leap years by Beal and Porter go directly into the win column. In other words, this good Wizards team is the sum of an equation that adds almost fully realized versions of Beal and Porter to the John Wall foundation. This is exciting, because Beal and Porter are both 23 years old and are under team control for exactly however many of the next five years the team wants them. John Wall plus good Bradley Beal plus good Otto Porter is a formula Washington fans can probably count on for the next half decade.
Another capable guard might just be enough to move the needle a click in the right direction — a few minutes per game of less urgency for the team’s core, or another potential weapon in a tight playoff series, or another lineup option for specific matchups, or a decent fallback in case of injury — but the important starting point is this: the Wizards, as constructed, are good, and they have a fair chance of staying good for a few more years. Goodness is, um, good, because good NBA teams (and there aren’t that many) are never more than a few breaks away from a long playoff run, and long playoff runs tend to accelerate internal improvements in a way that training camps often don’t. And Washington’s goodness isn’t very complex, like a sudden alchemical bullseye for an otherwise underwhelming roster — John Wall brought them to competency, and they needed one or both of their key developmental pieces to make a leap from working-class NBA rotation player to above average starter. That has happened, and here we are.
The virtue of building in this way — via internal player development—is that you never have to cast about with a whole lot of imagination to figure where you might find the engine of your next potential leap. If Bradley Beal can stay healthy, and develops a serviceable floor game, the Wizards will, by definition, improve upon their current level of play. Or, if Otto Porter can consistently knock down all those open 3s he’s getting, the Wizards will, by definition, improve upon their current level of play. So, if you are wondering how the Wizards will make another leap, from wherever they are right now to something that is even better, I would invite you to consider the play of young Kelly Oubre. His floor game is a mess. His finishing around the basket is sloppy. He’s not much of a passer. His 3-point shot comes and goes. But! He’s a fine and useful defender, and he saunters into a handful of open 3-point attempts per game, and he is firmly a net positive as a rotation player on this team. Here is the equation: If Kelly Oubre can consistently knock down those open 3s he’s getting, and improves his floor game a little, the Wizards will, by definition, improve upon their current level of play.
This is why the Wizards need to be careful about the cost of moving the needle in the short term. If, say, Lou Williams fails to move the needle, or turns into a pumpkin, the Wizards might still be a good team, and being good is better than being not good. But Lou Williams is a fully realized NBA player. Losing a developmental piece in his acquisition carries an opportunity cost, even for a team that is already good, because the team loses the clarity of knowing how they might drive their next potential leap. It’s important that the Wizards identify which of their developmental pieces are already useful to the team, and appropriately value the potential win-column gains to be reaped from natural and expected improvement among those pieces, and not trick themselves into devaluing those gains in pursuit of tradeoffs made in the margins around the core of their present goodness. Kelly Oubre is already a guy who can defend Isaiah Thomas and waltz into open 3s. If he starts making those 3s, watch out. If he starts making those 3s and learns how to attack a closeout, he will be magic. That potential — a magic man who defends elite scorers and knocks down 3s alongside a very good Wall-Beal-Porter core — is an awful lot to dangle for a useful guard who can shore up a vulnerability on a good team.
This isn’t about Oubre specifically, so much as it is about the clamor to cast about for external pieces to shore up vulnerabilities on the existing squad. The value of player development isn’t just in the quality of the players in the developmental pipeline, is what I’m saying. It’s in having an identifiable path forward with players whose roles have already begun taking shape in a system the needs of which are already known. The Wizards have a rare and precious opportunity to potentially take several steps forward over the next couple years without any significant reconfiguration. I’m not sure you break that up for Will Barton! I have suffered through long decades of miserable Washington basketball. This Wizards team is probably the best Wizards/Bullets team of my lifetime. Trey Burke is bad, but the quality gap between Lou Williams and Trey Burke is probably not enough for me to forgive lost years of improvement bought on the rising tide of player development.
Unless it is. Shit.
Know that, whatever happens, I will be here to hang my disappointment around Ernie Grunfeld’s neck like the heaviest yoke in the history of yokes.
Just leave Kelly Oubre out of your Trade Machine exploits, dammit.